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Kiss And Tell 

Gene Simmons discusses band's fiery history

If Gene Simmons' new autobiography and Kiss box set reveal anything, it's that the fire-breathing, blood-spitting Demon bassist remains unwilling to bite his considerable 8-inch tongue. Rarely humble, always blunt and consumed with a greed-is-good dedication rivaling Gordon Gekko, Simmons, 52, pounces when asked to define his band's loyal audience. "I would say our fan base is America because it seems to defy the logic and the odds," he begins. "When you really think about it, rock & roll bands are designed to be obsolete. You know, who wants your older brother's rock band? You'd rather have your own. Kiss seems to defy the odds. We are who we are, people seem to like us and it doesn't seem to matter how young or old they are. That brings the kids and everybody has a ball, which is ultimately what it's all about."

The band, shorthand for heavy metal bombast and Spinal Tap-style stage antics, began their quest for, uh, world domination in 1972. Despite shoddy musicianship and perhaps a handful of compelling songs, Kiss keeps on rock and rolling all night and profiteering every day. As they approach 30 years together, Simmons (bass and lead vocals) and original members Paul Stanley (rhythm guitar, lead vocals), Ace Frehley (lead guitar) and Peter Criss (drums) still have plenty of miles to go on a farewell tour that is cruising into, yes, its third year. Ever-mindful of the holiday shopping season, Simmons has a slew of merchandising and Kiss-related releases in the offing. First up was the aptly titled Kiss: The Box Set, a 6-hour, 94-track monstrosity selling for $70 (regular version) or in a deluxe Kiss guitar case ($180). The box set features 30 unreleased songs, including several selections from Simmons and Stanley's first band, Wicked Lester, offerings insipid enough to demonstrate significant musical growth for later Kiss inspirations like "Love Gun," "Lick It Up" and "Calling Dr. Love."

Soon after the box set, Simmons' autobiography, Kiss and Make-Up (Crown, 288 pp., $25.95), arrived at a Barnes & Noble near you. The tale of an Israeli immigrant (Simmons' birth name: Chaim Witz) and his devoted mother, it reveals a clear-headed, nerdy boy smitten with American TV, comic books and horror movies. Simmons and his mother (Gene's father disappeared soon after his son's birth) came to New York in 1958. Six years later, Gene, now in his teens, watched The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. And it was all over.

If literary and musical Kiss can't fill the stocking, Sterling Marlin's die-cast NASCAR ride featuring the band's image on the hood is on sale in replica version for a reasonable $64.95. Over on Court TV, Simmons hosts The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll, cataloging some of the musical world's many crimes and misdemeanors (the amount of money he's made, sadly, isn't among them).

Also in the works: a Kiss Broadway musical written by Steven Trask (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and directed by Rob Roth (Beauty and the Beast). "We're on our way," Simmons says. "This is serious stuff. Anything we do, we do seriously."

He goes on to mention a long-planned computer-animated Kiss cartoon series, a comic book line, an oft-delayed concert album, Alive IV, and enough bric-a-brac to embarrass a Star Trek convention. In fact, the loyal legions of aging Kiss fans and conventioneers (really) resemble Trekkies in their ardor for anything stamped with their heroes' visages and a logo. Thus far, the self-proclaimed Kiss Army has snapped up 80 million albums and trinkets produced by 2,500 Kiss licensees.

Simmons admits to being a mama's boy. His mother, who escaped a concentration camp, showered love and affection on her only child.

In his book, Simmons credits her with instilling "delusional self-confidence" and acknowledges an inflated self-worth: "I am one of those few guys who can look in a mirror and believe I am better looking than I actually am."

His father's absence affected him profoundly. Simmons, shall we say, has commitment issues. A voracious consumer of groupies, he admits girls and money -- in that order -- served as his only musical motivations. He's slept with 4,600 women and has the pictures to prove it. For the past 18 years, he's cohabited with former Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed. They have two children. Simmons, now a proud papa, considers parenting serious business, hoping to atone where his own father could not.

At heart, Simmons remains as square as they come. He carries an immigrant's relentless patriotism ("Everybody should be kissing the ground they live on, which is America"). He promised his mother he would never drink, smoke or do drugs. Save an amusing mistaken episode with pot-laced brownies, he's kept his word. Despite rock-star dreams as a teen, Simmons carried through on a pledge -- mom again -- to attend college.

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